Saturday, February 8, 2014

Oh, Baltimore - Bruised, not Broken

When I was in college Randy Newman - one of my favorite singer/songwriters - released an album that brought him great commercial success.  More for it’s controversial subject matter than artistic excellence (it’s not remotely among my personal favorites of Newman’s work) the album “Little Criminals” lit up the single and album charts on the strength of its hit “Short People.”  Newman’s wicked social commentary on intolerance was misunderstood by many and the song written off as prejudice.  In his best work (notwithstanding his amazing body of soundtrack work that has netted him 20 Academy Award nominations) Newman grabs us by the scruff of the neck, shakes us to our senses and demands we look at the world and it’s many ills and our own reactions, and inaction.

While most of the nation raged over “Short People” a different wave of unrest arose in my beloved Baltimore.  Another song on the album, titled “Baltimore” related a depressing view of the city, with its beat-up seagulls, hookers, drunks and other allusions to a dying city that certainly no other city in America had experienced prior. It’s closing lyrics told the whole story...

          Live out in the country
  Where the mountain's high
  Never comin' back here
  ‘Til the day I die

Baltimore flipped out.  Politicians vilified Newman and the seemingly narrow-minded slant of the song.  People wrote letters.  Long-time city comptroller Hyman Pressman - as great a cheerleader for Baltimore City as there ever was - wrote a poem in response.  According to the book “Randy Newman's American Dreams” by Kevin Courrier, Newman himself admitted his entire experience of Baltimore to that point had been a single train ride through town.  Newman came to Baltimore to perform in concert and the city bent over backwards to show Newman the error of his ways.  The “controversy” displayed Baltimore at both its best and its worst.

A long time has passed since that wailing and gnashing of teeth in 1977.  We were slapped in the face by our football team sneaking away in the night, crime and poverty grew, and affluent exodus to the suburbs created an urban apartheid that the city still struggles with today.  In recent years the impression many outside the city have of Baltimore are the television programs “Homicide: Life on the the Street” and “The Wire.”  Without a doubt some of the best television created in the last few decades, but not the kind of work that makes people stand up and shout “Damn! I want to move to that town!”

This brings us to last week.  A blogger on posted an article which quickly gathered steam through Internet sharing.  Titled “Baltimore City, You’re Breaking My Heart,” it presented an angry, nihilist picture of the city as a “complete shit-hole war zone depending on what street you turn down.”   While the author made some valid points about crime in the city it seemed to me the majority of the “good” they saw was focused on particular bars and parks.  In a word, limited.  The photograph that heads the article of a dilapidated, run-down, boarded-up neighborhood in a deep blue hue completes the picture.

Well, that “neighborhood” doesn’t exist any more.  It’s an area of North Duncan Street that was uninhabited at the time of the photograph in preparation for a major renovation in that East Baltimore community.  And yes, I’m well aware of the challenges created by development that often pushes people out of their homes, raises property taxes to the point where those with limited means can’t maintain their residences, and gentrification of neighborhoods permanently changes the character of a town that many refer to as “Smalltimore” because of the wonderful vibe of tight-knit communities drawn together by ethnicity, religion, national origin or just plain love.

These are not challenges unique to Baltimore.  These are not challenges which are jump-starting a massive new exodus out of the city.  Yes, there is much work to be done.  Yes, crime and education and racism and poverty are huge problems we must continue to engage with and work towards meaningful solutions.

I will always be the “glass half-full” guy.  I prefer to look for signs of hope rather than harbingers of disaster.  I prefer to believe in the better angels of our nature rather than demons that drag us into darkness.  And I will always believe when we look at the world and act out of love rather than fear or anger good will triumph.  Maybe, as John Lennon wrote “I’m a dreamer” but I know through my encounters with people at all walks of life in the City of Baltimore I’m not the only one.

Damn, I love this town.  I can’t imagine living anywhere else...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Once More Unto the Breach

It has been a very long time since I've publicly blogged. And I guess with the passage of time the desire (need?) has grown. Sometimes I wonder what the point is... Is it ego? Is it rambling? Is it genuine desire to share a perspective and invite dialogue? A desire to lay down publicly the goings-on of my existence? A diary/journal/spiritual expression? A desire to recover something that isn't limited to a 140 character Twitter soundbite? Perhaps all this and more. So, here I am back...

Since I last wrote here over three years ago much has changed in my daily goings-on. At our parish we closed our school. We lost a pastor. We gained a pastor. We gained a sister parish. We lost a pastor. We gained a pastor. Significant upheaval in the parish life of two communities in a short period of time.

Perhaps the upheaval nudged me to look more intentionally at my own life. I have rekindled and reassessed some relationships, finding healing and hope in unexpected places, love and care in people I've opened myself to. I have adjusted my approach to other relationships, taking to heart the old adage "You can't change other people - you can only change yourself." My grandmother passed away last year - it's been an odd adjustment realizing someone that was a part of my life for nearly 55 years is gone. A piece of that adjustment has been gratitude for the blessing of that presence for so very long, coupled with the understanding she really isn't gone at all. And I lost a dear friend that informed so much of my thinking on what it means to be a person of justice and peace in our world. It has indeed been a time of significant change and transition. The kind of change that I think would send many screaming "STOP - I've had enough!" And the changes continue...

Sounds dire, eh? Not so much. Change is a funny thing. We can run screaming from it. We can cross our arms across our chests and defiantly resist it. We can endure it. Or we can embrace it. And grow. And quite honestly as much as I would like to believe (and have others believe) I'm all about embracing it and growing, like the stages of grief I have moved through the stages of change forward and back and around and back again. In and out of the tunnel, through darkness and light. Seasons change. Reality changes. It's not easy. It's not always pleasant. And there are many temptations that come along that look as though they are an easy way out. A way to recover a level of comfort. A way to return to something - an idea, a culture, a reality - that just doesn't exist any longer. But the growth... well, the potential there is immeasurable.

I've worked very hard to embrace the changes. It has led me at times to question myself. Who am I really? Others questioned as well. Much more concerned than in a complimentary way. "You're different." "What happened to you?" And it has pushed me to consider who or what is my "authentic self"... who do I allow into my comfort zone? How many layers am I willing to peel back?

Change has forced me to grow in ways I never imagined, forced me to think outside the box, encouraged me to be an agent of possibility rather than an agent of resistance. This is a good thing. When we embrace the challenges, the hurts, the various negative impulses that impact our lives we can create context for light in our darkness. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope."

Signs of hope. In recent months I have made it my goal to not just seek out signs of hope, but recognize them. In people. In events. In the world. Seek out and spend time with those that inspire and energize me. And accept those that struggle - as we all do - and seek to understand the "Whys" of behavior rather than focus on the results of actions.

So here we go, once more unto the breach, dear friends...